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How Ellen Noble faced her fears

Throughout 2017, Noble battled anxiety and an intense fear of failure. This year, Noble's newfound perspective has her racing with confidence.

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Ellen Noble knew something was wrong.

It was the midpoint of the 2017 Charm City Cross race in Baltimore, and Noble lagged behind the leaders after an untimely crash. Her heart raced, and her legs burned — typical sensations for a cyclocross race. Noble also felt disparate, more troubling feelings. Intense pressure pushed down on her chest like an invisible hand. She felt as though everyone at the race was staring at her. In her mind, she heard their collective criticism. Why is Ellen Noble so far behind? Does she even deserve to be in this race?

Noble pulled into the pits, dismounted her bicycle, and collapsed onto the mud. As Noble tells it, a sudden rush of anxiety overwhelmed her and caused a panic attack.

“I just started to cry. All of these people are looking at me, and then I got up and went to my tent and cried for the rest of the race,” Noble says. “I DNF’d the race, which was the worst feeling because I could have kept going. But it’s like I’m also freaking out and losing control. It was awful.”

Memories of Noble’s terrible day in Baltimore feel distant this year, erased by months of victories and podium finishes.

Throughout 2018, she has blossomed into America’s top female cyclocross racer. In September, Noble nearly won the World Cup opener in Wisconsin after a daylong battle with cycling great Marianne Vos. In October, she rattled off a series of back-to-back victories at the country’s largest professional races; Charm City, Gloucester, Cincinnati, and Northampton.

The string of wins vaulted her to the top of USA Cycling’s Pro CX rankings and represented a major turning point in Noble’s young career. At 23, Noble is no longer a rider for the future; her time is now.

Ellen Noble
Noble won seven races in a row in 2018, starting in early October. Photo: Dave McElwaine

There are the usual nuts-and-bolts explanations for Noble’s step up, of course. Another year of racing has strengthened her legs and lungs. This year, Noble raced her first full season on mountain biking’s World Cup and developed a quiver of technical skills. Noble also stands on terra firma within cycling’s fickle job market, thanks to a factory ride with Trek and a personal endorsement with Red Bull.

Noble is quick to credit her success to both matter and mind. Those panic attacks in 2017 forced Noble rethink her fears of failure. So far, the new outlook has worked. Noble still faces those setbacks that are simply endemic to bike racing, but she no longer measures herself by every bobble in the mud or every crash.

“It’s so different this year — I know how to deal with the bad moments,” Noble says. “I still get annoyed with myself because I know I’m capable of more. It’s more of a rational dissatisfaction, instead of thinking that I’m never going to recover from this.”

Into the spotlight

Noble’s friends and teammates describe her with familiar cyclist words. She is a fierce competitor. She works hard. She loves the challenge put forth by cycling’s blend of skill and endurance.

“There is that dedication and passion but also the ability to want to kill you on the [race course],” says Jeremy Powers, who managed Noble last year on the Rapha-Focus team. “She has that killer instinct which is important because it can’t be taught.”

“Ellen puts in the work,” says her longtime coach, Al Donahue. “She never made quantum leaps in performance, she had to chip away at it over years.”

When asked to describe herself, Noble echoes those words and adds some of her own. Goofy. Sensitive. Introspective. At times introverted.

“I have two sides a lot of times,” Noble says. “I wouldn’t say I’m shy but I really like my alone time.”

Noble does not easily pass for an introvert these days — in fact, she has thrived as a budding cycling celebrity who is known for her candor. Last season she used her prominence to call attention to cycling’s lack of gender parity with her #BunnyhopThePatriarchy campaign. When online trolls shamed her for unzipping her skinsuit during the sweltering 2016 World Cup in Iowa, Noble’s response on social media addressed the glaring double standard from the criticism. In January, Noble shed light on her struggles with crash dieting.

Noble’s outspoken nature and stellar results have won her a sizable fanbase, both online and at the races. Throughout 2017, Noble saw her growing following, and had a realization: If fans and media lauded her for her victory, what did they think about her defeats, her crashes, her failures? Over time, Noble came to worry that her prominence within the sport meant she had to be perfect.

“I got the feeling that people were paying attention to me especially if I started to race like crap,” Noble says.”And when I raced like crap I just took things further in my head.”

Ellen Noble
In her first year in the elite ranks in 2017, Noble felt the mounting pressure of high expectations. Photo: @pinnedgrit

The newfound anxiety started as a whimper but grew as the season progressed. For 2017, Noble set major expectations for herself. After winning the under-23 World Cup and nearly winning the U23 world championships, she stepped into her first season in the elite ranks hoping to turn heads. She started the season with an eye-popping result, finishing third place at the World Cup opener in Waterloo, Wisconsin. Like all first-year elites, Noble also struggled. The pace of the women’s elite field was faster, especially at the World Cup level. She sometimes made mistakes and crashed — typical cyclocross stuff. Only now, when Noble faltered, she felt like she was under a microscope.

“I worried people thought my podium was by accident. That I’m just a fluke and that I didn’t deserve to be on a team or have sponsors,” she says. “There were all of these emotions of inadequacy like maybe I didn’t deserve to be there. Like I was an imposter. And I actually believed it.”

As the 2017 campaign rolled into the fall, Noble says she was often crippled by the fear of public failure. She embarked on a European campaign in November and felt her anxiety roar back. In her mind, every race was another opportunity to be judged.

Donahue, who also runs the JAM Fund team, says Noble was not the only young athlete to deal with these anxieties. By the midpoint of 2017, Donahue says Noble’s feelings peaked.

“We have a group of people who can share their experiences with this type of anxiety,” Donahue says. “We were able to help her reach outside of our program.”

Rooting out the fear

How did Ellen Noble address her anxiety? There is no one answer, of course. Noble says she hired a sports psychologist midway through last season. She took to writing a journal to express her feelings, both positive and negative. She reached out to friends and family to create a support network for when times are tough. Slowly, as weeks and months rolled by, her mentality changed. Failures still happened, only they resulted in a lengthy Instagram caption or a call back home.

“You can tell yourself the nice stuff, that you do deserve to be here, but at the end of the day you have to find the root of it,” Noble says. “You have to bring yourself to the point where you can have real conversations about these feelings.”

Noble then sought experience outside of the cyclocross scene. In 2018 Noble embarked on a full mountain bike World Cup campaign with the Trek Factory Racing team, the first step toward what she hopes is an eventual Olympic berth in mountain biking. The European World Cup races often feature terrifying technical features, like sheer drops and punishing descents. Noble knew she would struggle at the races, and she did. In her first World Cup, in Albstadt, Germany, she finished a distant 57th place, nearly 17 minutes behind winner Jolanda Neff.

Mountain bike racing forced Noble to confront failure on a weekly basis.

“Sure, I cried basically every day I was on the World Cup because I’m trying to make up years of learning in a few weeks,” Noble says. “It was so heavy. I would come home and maybe journal about it or cry in the shower. I would get so frustrated but I didn’t have those freakouts.”

As Noble progressed through her World Cup campaign, she says she began to view her cycling career through a wider angle. Many of her mistakes — and there were plenty — led to breakthroughs at subsequent races. She tackled the World Cup for the first time at age 22, so how would she fare at 27, or 30? Perhaps each individual bobble or crash wasn’t as Earth-shattering as it felt in the moment. And Noble saw improvement on the mountain bike. A breakthrough occurred at the fourth round of the World Cup in Val di Sole, Italy. Noble started on the back row and powered her way through the field, making a last-lap charge to finish in 16th place, just 4:20 down.

“I had gotten past the sheer terror of riding the course and I could actually focus on racing it. I finally found form that I had been chasing for months,” Noble says. “Sure, maybe 16th place isn’t what World Cup careers are made of, but for me, it was a huge ride.”

Noble’s next chapter

Charm City Cross Day One
Ellen Noble won both days at Charm City Cross 2018. Photo: Bruce Buckley

A year after her DNF, Noble returned to Baltimore for the Charm City race. Her mother, Sandy, was there alongside her dog, Shadow. She had her favorite breakfast, a waffle topped with an egg. Fall rains churned the course into mud, perfect for a rider with great power and World Cup-level handling skills. Noble raced with her head and her legs. For much of the race, Noble hung with her newfound rival, Canadian Maghalie Rochette, until the final lap. Noble surged up the final climb to drop Rochette and win alone, with a smile. Noble repeated the victory the following day to sweep the race weekend.

The Charm City victory, in her eyes, marked just another chapter in what will surely be a long career of wins, losses, success, and failure.

“I know I’m going to get frustrated with races. I’m going to get disappointed,” Noble says. “I’m human.”